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Henry the Seventh by James Gairdner (pub. 1899)

 

 

CHAPTER VIII

IRELAND


IRISH history is seldom or never more lucid than that of England; yet in a period of general obscurity we are not left without some light on the interesting question how it was that Ireland -- the most difficult part of his dominions to pacify -- became comparatively tractable under Henry VII. If other rulers before and after him have found the Irish problem present difficulties almost insuperable, to him very soon after his accession those difficulties were as formidable as they could possibly be. The rebellion in favour of Lambert Simnel had been like a spontaneous movement of almost the whole country. It had been supported by the Lord Deputy, with the principal bishops, abbots, and nobles, and almost all the judges; and even after it was put down, the idea of punishing those who took part in it was wholly out of the question. In fact, as we have seen, Henry was obliged to proclaim a general amnesty, and to admit even the greatest offenders into favour with but slender guarantees for their future loyalty. Yet Perkin Warbeck met with distinctly less support than Simnel had done, especially on his second and third visits to the country; and during the remainder of the reign the Irish, though they had wars among themselves, never became a serious danger to the peace of England.

For some time before Henry came to the throne the Kings of England had been accustomed to appoint a Viceroy or Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, commonly a member of the royal family, who never visited the island, and under him a Lord Deputy, on whom the practical work of government naturally fell. Following the established practice, Henry, within six months after his accession, appointed his uncle Jasper, Duke of Bedford, Lord Lieutenant. As to the deputy ship he tried, as we have seen, to negotiate with the Earl of Kildare that he should be Deputy for a term of years, on condition that he should come over to England and bring with him an account of the revenues of Ireland, out of which he should have a salary of £1000 a year if they could sustain the charge. Kildare of course never came, and he and all Ireland supported Lambert Simnel. Sir Richard Edgecombe next year took what slender securities he could for the behaviour of him and others, and Kildare was reinstated as Lord Deputy. Yet scarcely had Sir Richard sailed for England when complaints began to be made against Kildare by the Archbishop of Armagh, an Italian, who claimed to be the only man in Ireland who had openly opposed Simnel's coronation, and begged that, if Kildare retained the rule, he might be appointed Chancellor to keep him in check.

Henry, however, had a way of his own of bringing the Irish to repentance for their rebellion. Just after the battle of Stoke he sent for Kildare and the other Irish lords who had been taken prisoners fighting in behalf of the pretender, and they appeared together before the Council. He had a long talk with them about their rebellion, in the end of which he said to them, "My masters of Ireland, you will crown apes at length!" They were then dismissed from their examination, and being led away in procession, were not a little comforted to perceive that the face of the axe which was borne before them was turned away from them -- a sign that their lives were spared. Nor was this all. They were ordered to dine that day in Court, where Lambert Simnel waited upon them in the character of cupbearer. This was the most galling indignity to which they could have been exposed. "None would have taken the cup out of his hands," says a lively Irish writer of the next generation, "but bade the great Devil of Hell him take before that ever they saw him." Only one man of the company felt quite at ease -- the Lord of Howth, who had sent the king privy notice of all that was done in Ireland, and enabled him the better to meet the rebels in England. "Bring me the cup," he said, "if the wine be good, and I shall drink it off for the wine's sake and mine own sake also. And as for thee," he added, addressing Simnel, "as thou art, so I leave thee, a poor innocent."

After Sir Richard Edgecombe's visit to Ireland no notice appears to have been taken of any complaints against Kildare for about two years; but on the 28th of July 1490 the king felt it necessary to write to him, requiring his presence in England. Whether Warbeck had by that time made his first appearance in Ireland is uncertain -- he is commonly supposed to have landed there in 1491. All that was formally objected to the earl on this occasion was a breach of the statutes against giving liveries and keeping retinues. Nor was it the king's intention to treat offences like these with severity; for a pardon was sent to him for mere illegalities of this sort on condition that he would present himself before the king within ten months. But Kildare was not accustomed to a summons, and was not more ready to come over than when he received the more gentle invitation sent by John Estrete. He simply allowed the ten months to expire, and then got the Irish Council to write in his behalf that, in consequence of the state of the country, his presence in Ireland was absolutely indispensable. The letter also assured the king that he was as faithful in his allegiance as any subject could be; and it was signed by fifteen members of the Council, the Archbishop of Armagh being one. The earl at the same time wrote a letter of his own, giving as the special cause of his detention that he had been called in to settle a dispute between his cousin, the Earl of Desmond, and Lord Bourke of Connaught; and he suggested that if the king would send over to Ireland some trusty servant, he would get all the lords, spiritual and temporal, of Munster, and the Lord Bourke and all the lords of Connaught, to be bound to his Majesty like himself, and many whose ancestors had never been bound to any King of England would be compelled to acknowledge Henry as their sovereign. Finally, the Earl of Desmond and three other lords wrote, at his instigation, from Limerick that they had persuaded him to remain in Ireland, not merely on account of the dispute between Desmond and Bourke, but also for fear the north should be destroyed in his absence by Irish enemies recently subdued, and likewise in consideration of the dangers that might befall his valuable person at sea both going and returning.

What Henry thought of these excuses we may pretty well imagine. But as Kildare's influence was paramount, he could not be hastily removed; and he remained as Deputy one year longer. In the spring of 1492, how ever, the king having by that time fully satisfied himself of the fact that he had given underhand support to Perkin Warbeck -- "the French lad," as the earl called him, writing to Henry to disavow it -- at length dismissed him from that office and appointed Walter Fitzsimons, Archbishop of Dublin, in his room. The whole govern ment of Ireland at the same time changed hands. Kildare's father-in-law, Baron Portlester, was deprived of the offices of Lord Chancellor and Lord Treasurer, which he held together, the former being conferred on Alexander Plunket and the latter upon James Ormond, soon afterwards knighted for his services to the king, a bastard son of the fifth Earl of Ormond. The long reign of the Geraldines in Ireland, who by favour of the House of York had borne sway for nearly forty years, was at length interrupted for a time.

The rival house of the Butlers was not at this time violently opposed to the Fitzgeralds. Its head was Thomas, seventh Earl of Ormond, who lived in England and was chamberlain to Henry's queen. His cousin, Piers Butler, who afterwards succeeded to the title, managed his estates in Ireland as his deputy. But when James Ormond was sent over to Ireland as Lord Treasurer he appears also to have received a commission from the earl to act as his "general and special attorney" in Kilkenny. There soon arose a conflict between his authority and that of Piers Butler. Kildare had taken the side of the latter and given him his daughter in marriage. But Sir James Ormond, now that Kildare was in disgrace, not only took possession of the Earl of Ormond's lands, but was recognised by the Irish, who cared little about legitimacy of birth, as Earl of Ormond himself. Even some old Irish historians speak of him by that title. The quarrel between him and Kildare grew warm. He marched up to Dublin, and a regular faction fight took place in the streets, in the course of which some houses were set on fire, and he was pursued by Kildare himself into the chapter-house of St. Patrick's Church, where he barred himself in and would trust no assurance of his safety till, a hole being cut in the door, as he feared to put his hand through to shake hands with the earl, the latter put in his to shake hands with him.

Soon after this Viscount Gormanston was made Deputy in place of the Archbishop of Dublin, who went over to England to report the state of the country to the king himself, and was immediately followed by Kildare, anxious to justify himself against a multitude of accusations. The way in which he did so has been told with a considerable spice of Irish humour by one of the compilers of The Book of Howth. The Bishop of Meath, whom he had arrested in a church into which he had pursued him with drawn sword, was his principal accuser, and charged him with a number of misdemeanours. He replied that he could make no answer for lack of learned counsel. The king desired him to choose any counsel in England, and he should have time to instruct him. "Then," said the earl, "I shall make answer to-morrow; but I doubt I shall not have that good fellow that I would choose." "By my truth thou shalt," replied the king "Give me your hand," said the earl, with a freedom altogether ignorant of Court manners. "Here it is," replied Henry, amused at the naivete' of his demeanour. The earl in fact treated the king quite on equal terms, addressing him with the familiar "thou," as he did also several members of the Council, who seeing the king's disposition, took the matter in good part also. "Well," said the king to him, "when will you choose your counsel?" "Never, if he be put to his choice," interposed the bishop. "Thou liest,, bald bishop," replied the earl, "as soon as thou wouldest choose a fair wench if thou hadst thy wish"; and turning to the king, declared he had three stories to tell against his accuser. "Well," said the king, "you had better make a careful choice as to your counsel, for I think he will have enough to do for you." "Shall I choose now?" said the earl. "If you think good," replied Henry. "Well," said the earl, "I can see no better man than you, and by St. Bride I will choose none other." "A wiser man might have chosen worse," said the king, laughing.

"You see the sort of man he is," said the bishop at length; "all Ireland cannot rule him." "No?" said the king, "then he must be the man to rule all Ireland"; and accordingly, the writer adds, the king made him Deputy again, and sent him back to Ireland with great gifts. But the narrative certainly runs on a little too fast in that matter; for it was not till after about four years had elapsed that the king ventured again on the experiment of placing Ireland under Kildare's government. Meanwhile he proposed to make the whole administration of the country English and directly responsible to himself. Having now two sons he, on the 12th of September 1494, created the second, Henry, Lord Lieutenant in place of his uncle, Jasper, Duke of Bedford, and under him he appointed Sir Edward Poynings as Deputy, the experienced commander of the troops sent to besiege Sluys two years before. Henry Dean, Bishop-elect of Bangor, was at the same time made Chancellor of Ireland, Thomas Butler, Master of the Rolls, and Sir Hugh Conway, Treasurer.

The king evidently hoped to steer clear of Irish factions and administer justice in the country with strict impartiality, and if any man could give effect to his wishes in this matter it was Poynings. He entered on his offlce with one apparent advantage. The two rivals, Kildare and Ormond, both consented to act under him; and with them he set out on an expedition to Ulster against O'Donnell, who was in league with the Scots. But not to be influenced in some degree by Irish faction on one side or the other was a sheer impossibility. When they reached O'Hanlon's country (in Armagh) Sir James Ormond accused Kildare not only of intriguing against the Deputy by sending men to assist O'Hanlon, but of inciting the Irish to murder him. News also arrived that Lord James Fitzgerald, the earl's brother, had seized the king's castle of Carlow and set upon it the standard and cognisance of the Geraldines. The Ulster expedition was abandoned, and Poynings marched southwards to recover Carlow, which he only succeeded in doing after a lengthened siege. He then proceeded to Drogheda, where he held a Parliament, perhaps the most memorable that was ever held in Ireland, as certainly no other Parliament in that country made laws which endured so long as two which were then enacted, and were known for centuries afterwards as the "Poynings Acts."

By the first of these it was ordained that no Parliament should be held in Ireland in future until the king's Council in Englalld had approved not only of its being summoned, but also of the Acts which the Lieutenant and Council of Ireland proposed to pass in it. By the second the laws enacted before that time in England were extended to Ireland. Thus the Irish legislature was made entirely dependent upon England. The Irish Parliament had no power originate anything, but was only free to accept or (if they were very bold) to reject measures drawn up by the Irish Council and approved already by the king and his Council in England before they were submitted to discussion. Little as this looks like parliamentary government, such was the state of subjection in which the Irish Parliament remained by virtue of this law for nearly three centuries later. Almost the whole time, that is to say, that Ireland had a separate Parliament at all it remained in this manner restricted in its action by the legislation of Sir Edward Poynings; for, however inconsistent such a state might be with the development of constitutional principles, no better means could be devised of keeping the Irish legislature in harmony with the Government of England.

It should be remembered, however, that Henry VII. merely sought to do in Ireland what there is every reason to suppose he practically did in England. Legislation was not at this time considered to be the chief business of a Parliament. The responsibility of framing new laws and ordinances lay chiefly, or it may be said entirely, with the king's Council; and in the following reign we have in some cases the first drafts of laws actually passed in the English Parliament, and of petitions supposed to have originated in the Commons, drawn up in the hand writing of the king's ministers. It was upon the king's business, not upon the nation's, that Parliament was understood to be called together; and if his Majesty did not make too great demands upon them for money there were few in either House -- especially in the Commons -- likely to dispute the wisdom of measures which the Council had thought expedient to be passed for the public weal.

Besides these two specially memorable Acts, there were also several other measures passed in this Parliament at Drogheda with practically the same end in view -- the establishment of a system of Engli.sh government with direct responsibility to the king in England. There were enactments conceived in a very just spirit to keep down faction, to suppress party war-cries, and to punish the practices of coyne and livery. Thus oppression and feudalism within the land were counteracted as far as Parliament could do so. But the great matter was to secure that English rule should be really enforced, and that all who held important offices should be made re sponsible to the central government. Kildare was at tainted, as a matter of course. It was also ordained that the principal castles throughout Ireland should always be under the command of Englishmen. But a very significant statute was also passed to annul what was declared to be "an usurpation or pretended prescription," by which Ireland was supposed to be an asylum for English rebels, who were received and harboured there in defiance of the king's writs sent out of England. This theory had gained strength under the weak rule of Henry VI., when Richard, Duke of York -- regarded as a rebel in England -- held undisputed authority in Ireland; and the mischief resulting from it had been sufficiently apparent in the support that had been given of late to "these two lads," as the Act called them, meaning Simnel and Warbeck.

Legislation, however, could do little to enlarge the sphere of English authority, which was scarcely recognised beyond the pale; and it lay with the inhabitants of four counties -- Dublin, Meath, Kildare, and Louth -- to protect their borders against inroads of the wild Irish. This duty Poynings strongly enforced; but he likewise did his utmost to extend the king's authority beyond these limits. He came to an understanding with M'Murrough, O'Brien, O'Neil, and other chieftains, mainly, if not entirely, through pensions given them to aid against other enemies; but even he was not the man to "rule all Ireland." He who could make the nearest approach to that feat was Kildare, whom he had sent over to England as a traitor, and whose kinsmen gave quite as much trouble in his absence, or probably rather more, than if he had been in Ireland.

But Kildare, before a year had passed, either justified himself to Henry's satisfaction or succeeded in convincing him that he would be really less dangerous in Ireland as Deputy than in the Tower of London as a prisoner. During, his imprisonment Perkin Warbeck paid his second visit to Ireland after his failure to land in Kent, and was supported by Kildare's cousin, the Earl of Desmond. Other Geraldines also gave a good deal of trouble in the earl's absence. Poynings returned from Ireland early in 1496, and some time afterwards Kildare was allowed to go back as Deputy, leaving his son Gerald as a hostage with the king. He remained in authority till the end of the reign of Henry VII., and even for many years after. In 1503 he was summoned to England, where he remained three months, and was allowed to take back his son. The king had been apparently satisfied with his conduct in the meanwhile; and the friendly personal feeling that had grown up between him and the earl served greatly to mitigate, if not altogether to remove, the Irish diffculty in Henry's days. The earl at least was out and out the most powerful man on the eastern side of the country, and in 1504 he obtained a great victory, with a much inferior force, over a confederation of clans in the west at the battle of Knocktoe, and thus advanced the king's authority in a region where it was apt to be little regarded.

It need hardly be said that it was not at his instigation that Warbeck came to Ireland for the last time in 1497, a year after he had been restored as Deputy. It was at the solicitation of Sir James Ormond, who, preferring to be recognised by the Butlers as Earl of Ormond, and exercise among them an undisputed authority rather than to do his duty either to his kinsman or his prince, had twice refused obedience to the king's letters summon ing him to England, and had thrown off all pretence of loyalty. He was killed that same year in an encounter with Sir Piers Butler.